Thursday, September 24, 2015

Quick Fix: The Rats in the Basement Problem

Hi everyone! It's been a great summer, but I'd like to get started back with blog posts. The "Quick Fix" articles will cover common Dungeon Master problems along with my solutions to them. In addition, my goal is to keep each piece to 500 words or less in order to improve readability and hone my writing and editing skills.

The Rats in the Basement Problem
It's the first session of a new D&D game. The brave heroes are sitting around a tavern, looking for a quest. The innkeeper approaches, offering fifty gold pieces to deal with an infestation of giant rats in her basement.

The Core Issue
It's difficult to come up with an engaging adventure for low-level characters. Their mediocre combat abilities and skills make them unable to deal with large-scale challenges. Thus, Dungeon Masters often present them with an easy adventure in order to "level them up" to the point where they can slay dragons and save the world.
Here's the problem: adventures like "Rats in the Basement" are boring! When players feel like their actions are unimportant or the adventure is uninteresting, they stop caring about the game.

Solving the Problem
You can use a dragon in your adventure - even at level 1!
Artist: Guido Kuip
Here are some tips for making low-level adventures engaging:
  • Tie the adventure to your group. Take some time to understand your players' characters. D&D Fifth Edition has a neat tool for this: read up on your characters' bonds, ideals, etc. If they're searching for a lost tome of lore or being chased by an old enemy, add those motivations and characters to your adventure - or even build the adventure around them!
  • Focus on player skill rather than character ability. Presenting challenges like a puzzle or a mystery lets you raise the stakes without worrying about stats. For example, a deadly rune puzzle trap can be handled by low-level characters if you focus on the players solving the puzzle (rather than their characters' magical abilities or saving throw bonuses).
  • Offer the characters a glimpse into a larger world or conflict. If your campaign is about dragons, let the characters witness a dragon attack a village. They don't have to fight the dragon - perhaps they help save innocent villagers from its minions - but witnessing its presence will keep things exciting and foreshadow future conflicts.*
  • Make use of description and fantasy to keep things exciting. Fighting low-level enemies - goblins and zombies, for example - feels boring if they're simply described as "goblins" or "zombies." Show your players a picture from the Monster Manual, or describe the smell of rotting flesh and the way the zombies can absorb attacks without pain. Similarly, exotic adventure environments, like a magical metropolis or a volcanic wasteland, add a touch of fantasy to otherwise mundane adventures.
  • Show the players that their actions matter. An adventure where the characters guard a caravan feels unimportant if the players receive only a "good job" and fifty gold pieces for their efforts. Look for ways to demonstrate your players' effect on the world. Maybe the caravan bring sellers of exotic (magic!) goods into town, or the King hears of the Paladin's deeds and sends an envoy to offer her knighthood.
For Dungeon Masters of all experience levels, my hope is that this article will give you some insight into building low-level (or low-stakes) adventures that feel a little more engaging. Until next time!

*Example adapted from the adventure Hoard of the Dragon Queen by Wolfgang Baur and Steven Winter.

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